I've never been attracted to cruise ship vacations and I'm even less interested now that I've seen the news of the Costa Concordia disaster. But any disaster also makes me imagine what it must have been like to be there. My guess is that the chaos of the evacuation and subsequent rescues were quite typical of many disasters even though the Captain of the Costs Concordia appears to have been especially inept.
Being able to quickly and safely evacuate something as big as a town, particularly when it happens to be in the middle of the ocean seems like a tall order under any circumstances let alone when the ship is sinking. Cruise ship companies say they can evacuate everyone on board within a very short window of time but I wonder if their projections take into account passengers of various mental and physical abilities, the inevitable crew problems, and the fact that escape routes will be changing as the ship sinks. It makes me wonder whether the race to build ever bigger cruise ships is right from a safety perspective. Beyond the specific players of the Costa Concordia, it seems like there are lessons to be learned here for any disaster.
In the critical minutes after disaster strikes, those in charge may be in denial of the scale of the emergency
This certainly seems to be the case with the captain of the Costa Concordia. Passengers may need to question decisions if they don't jibe with what you're seeing. Admitting the problem and calling for an "abandon ship" is perhaps the best and worst thing a captain might have to do from a career perspective so he or she may be reluctant to do so even when all signs point to it's necessity. You should expect a lack of clear communication. Worse, they may also feed bad information to subordinates who will then be feeding it to you. The many calls for passengers to return to their cabins was an example of this. If my cabin was any lower than the top level, I'd be high-tailing up to the open decks to keep my options open.
Drills and exercises may not adequately prepare crew members for the chaos of a full-on disaster
In the face of extreme emergency, almost anyone is likely to be overwhelmed or perhaps experiencing disbelief. Highly functioning organizations like the Navy Seals, the Marines, and fire departments drill over and over so reactions become second nature. On a cruise ship, the crew's normal day-to-day "drill" is running a hotel, keeping guests happy and literally re-arranging deck chairs. Should we really expect them to act as well as a marine or paramedic in the face of death and disaster?
Even well-thought out emergency plans have to change in reaction to the specifics of a disaster
Ever since the Titanic, cruise ships have to carry enough life boats for everyone on board. But what happens when a sinking ship quickly lists to one side? Do they carry twice as many life boats as needed? Life boats on both sides of the Costa Concordia became inoperable when the ship tipped under water on one side and got stuck on the other, high side. Timing is also an issue. Can lifeboats be filled and deployed right away or do denial, chaos and disorganization conspire to delay some boats and send others away half empty.
There are many stories of survivors from other disasters who lived only because they took matters into their own hands and scrambled for exits while others hesitated and died. Perhaps the one smart thing the captain did among the many bad things was to aim the ship for land and beach it close enough for some to jump and swim to shore. This allowed a few brave souls to take matters into their own control. Beaching the boat also seems to have allowed lifeboats and other nearby ships to make multiple trips to and from the ship while others remained incapacitated. There were stories of some crew members unable to steer the boats away from the ship once they were full. Until you're experienced, steering a boat can be counter-intuitive. Yet another example of inadequate training. The drills probably extend to getting the boats lowered into the water but do they include experience once under power?
I hope I never know what it's like to experience a disaster of this magnitude. But if I do, I plan to listen to what officials have to say, decide whether the plan makes sense and then play an active role in my own survival.